Strange Bedfellows: Socialists And Libertarians

On foreign policy, immigration and civil liberties, the two have more in common than they think.
By @FrederickReese |
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    Pictured, a tax day protest in St. Paul, Minn. Libertarians and socialists make for strange bedfellows, but bedfellows nonetheless, argues the author. (Photo/Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

    Pictured, a tax day protest in St. Paul, Minn. Libertarians and socialists make for strange bedfellows, but bedfellows nonetheless, argues the author. (Photo/Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

    The author Ayn Rand, who considered herself an adamant defender of capitalism, once described libertarians as the “hippies of the right.” “I disapprove of, disagree with and have no connection with, the latest aberration of some conservatives, the so-called ‘hippies of the right,’ who attempt to snare the younger or more careless ones of my readers by claiming simultaneously to be followers of my philosophy and advocates of anarchism. Anyone offering such a combination confesses his inability to understand either,” Rand wrote in The Objectivist in 1971.

    At the heart of Rand’s argument is the undue analogy of libertarians being anarchists — by assuming an individual-first philosophy, a person is negating and ignoring the fundamental philosophies needed to proliferate a free market “for the sake of some superficial political action which is bound to fail. It means that you help the defeat of your ideas and the victory of your enemies.”

    Libertarians, for the most part, remain a misunderstood and often exaggerated element of the American political system. While the subset that qualifies under the Merriam-Webster definition of libertarian — “lib·er·tar·i·an, noun, 1) an advocate of the doctrine of free will; 2) a: a person who upholds the principles of individual liberty especially of thought and action, b. capitalized: a member of a political party advocating libertarian principles” — encompasses 28 percent of the voting populace in some version or form, the notion of libertarian populism, or the idea of the people’s rejection of the establishment, popularized by Sen. Rand Paul (R – Ky.), has become what most people think of as libertarianism in current political conversations.

    Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, argued libertarian populism as “the politics against all things big;” “‘populist libertarianism’ — a strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of ‘bigness’ in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well.”

    This allegedly anti-government, seemingly obstructionist methodology of this approach to politics has been a major component of the gridlock and polarization that has seized the gears of Congress. Ayn Rand, who is identified as an influence to many libertarians, said in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, “I will never live for the sake of another man,” which has been taken as a characterizing attitude to this line of political thought.


    Intersections of socialism and libertarianism

    But, in many key ways, libertarian populist theory mirrors that of its opposing philosophy, socialism. An example of this is the question of spying on Americans. Libertarians argue that domestic spying directly infringes on one’s individual liberties and rights to assume “reasonable privacy” within their own private space.

    Libertarians also argue that any government power that is not rigidly defined and challengeable by private citizens can be exploited and misused and should be assumed to have been exploited and misused. Interestingly enough, socialists feel the same way. Such poorly-defined hidden government powers can be used to challenge or impede political activism and to protect the interests of the government and big business.

    Currently, the country is at a unique intersection of political ideology, where many divergent ideas and concepts reach a common point in their trajectories. This represents a rare understanding where the philosophies may be different, but the drawn conclusion to many of the nation’s most contentious issues are shared among socialists and libertarians.


    Shared thoughts on health care

    Another example of this is the Affordable Care Act. Despite calls on the right that the president’s signature health care legislation is socialist, the notion of forcing individuals on to an insurance exchange actually held from previous Republican platforms. The socialist position on health care is a single payer system, in which the government assumes all insurance responsibilities for all citizens and a controlled premium rate is drawn from tax revenues. According to the Socialist Party USA, the socialist position is a rejection of ACA. “While citizens in most other industrialized nations enjoyed the benefits of publicly administered health care from the aftermath of WW II forward, Americans have suffered under a health care system dominated by private corporations,” the group said in a statement.

    Libertarians reject the ACA on the grounds that it is a de facto tax, requiring that all Americans must buy into a health insurance plan or face fines.


    Shared thoughts on the military and foreign policy

    Foreign policy is another point of commonality. Libertarians argue that the United States should engage in “armed neutrality,” in which while the nation takes steps to protect international free trade, it also avoids “foreign entanglements” by shunning negative international relationships, denies foreign aid as a measure of anti-terrorism and commits the military to the sole business of national defense.

    “The military budget of the United States, conservatively measured at around $700 billion (but probably closer to $1 trillion once all security measures and veteran benefits are considered), is approximately equal to all of the military budgets of all other countries combined,” the Libertarian Party wrote on its issues page.  “If the US military budget were cut in half, it would still be the largest in the world. Then, if it were cut in half again, it would STILL be the largest in the world. Then, if it were cut in half a third time, reduced to only one-eighth its current size, it would STILL be the largest in the world.  And that’s using the conservative measure.”

    “Whatever motivates this enormous budget, it is certainly not for the defense of American soil. Indeed, when the Department of Homeland Security was created, this was a virtual admission that the Department of Defense had goals other than homeland security. No foreign army has the slightest capacity to invade the United States, and as North Korea has demonstrated, even the possession of a single nuclear weapon is enough to deter invasion.”

    Socialists argue that the money and resources utilized in the maintenance of the nation’s military infrastructure can be used for social programs toward improving the lives of the citizenry.


    Shared thoughts on immigration

    Both socialists and libertarians reject the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. As written by Daniel Griswold, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, “[We] can spend billions more to beef up border patrols. We can erect hundreds of miles of ugly fence slicing through private property along the Rio Grande. We can raid more discount stores and chicken-processing plants from coast to coast. We can require all Americans to carry a national ID card and seek approval from a government computer before starting a new job. Or we can change our immigration law to more closely conform to how millions of normal people actually live.

    “Crossing an international border to support your family and pursue dreams of a better life is not an inherently criminal act like rape or robbery. If it were, then most of us descend from criminals. As the people of Texas know well, the large majority of illegal immigrants are not bad people. They are people who value family, faith and hard work trying to live within a bad system.”

    While libertarians and socialists differ on the guest worker program, both groups agree that there should be established legal protections not only for existing illegal immigrants, but for new immigrants as well, and that immigration quotas should be responsive to the labor needs of the nation.


    Shared thoughts on free speech

    Finally, while there is no established statement from the Socialist Party in regards to free speech, the platform does support the public funding of newspapers and magazines and public ownership of satellite and cable networks, and opposes restrictions of “fair use,” copyright extension laws and private ownership of the Internet backbone. While it cannot be argued that libertarians support all or any of these issues, they have taken an explicit stance against online censorship and have called for unrestricted freedom of speech.

    In light of the challenges the Congress and the nation as a whole have in front of them, consideration of the common ground that lies between the extreme left and the extreme right should be kept in mind. In regards, for example, to the recent negotiations and debates concerning immigration reform and the future of the military, a move past partisan posturing toward what the two sides actually believe may show that the road to compromise is shorter than both thought.

    The fine truth lies in the fact that a person that separates himself with labels stands alone. In America, all political thought crosses another eventually.

    This article originally appeared on MintPress on Aug. 13, 2013.

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    • Kennon Gilson

      Rand was actually denouncing conservative nutcases posing as Libertarians and anarchists. For more on the world movement, including Rand’s participation see

    • Russell Theilman

      I am a registered libertarian, about all i can say is there is so much wrong with this story, my guess is the writer is a socialist and is blowing smoke up the ass of every single reader of this piece and read something about libertarians and is twisting the libertarian ideals around to fit the socialist narrative.

    • Zach Zeurcher

      Not even close. Socialist nations seem to have the worst domestic spying on its citizens. Nazi Germany, Venezuela, etc. Your other arguments say they agree that they don’t like what the government is doing but want to take it to a completely different spectrum. Terrible attempt at trying to make the argument that the two are similar.

    • Amaroq

      At first, when I saw this headline, I thought it was going to be a long-needed criticism of the flaws of Libertarians. But it turned out to just be socialists trying to ride on the coattails of libertarians to look better than they deserve to look. What garbage.

      I follow the ideas of Ayn Rand. And she was right to criticize the Libertarians’ attempts to package Anarchy with Capitalism.

    • bob

      I took a shit once, this article popped out

    • Bob Fisher

      There aren’t any similarities between socialism and libertarianism. The author is completely ignoring the underlying philosophical argument behind each ideology, and just focusing on the fact that they superficially “agree” on some issues. The author doesn’t understand that *why* you believe something is infinitely more important than *what* you believe when trying to find an ideological ally. It’s like saying the poultry industry and PETA have similarities because they both want people to eat less beef. Coinciding *interests* does not equal coinciding ideologies.

      The author’s own example of health care is perfect. He seems to think there’s some intersection here just because socialists and libertarians both don’t like the Affordable Care Act. Libertarians don’t like it because they say it infringes on individual liberties. Socialists don’t like it because they say it doesn’t go far enough.

      Implicit in the socialist argument that the Affordable Care Act doesn’t go far enough is the idea that free health care is an individual right. Libertarians, however, would tell you that it’s impossible for an ‘individual right’ to require something of others (that is to say, free health care can’t be a right, because it forces someone else such as a doctor to give up his labor to satisfy your supposed ‘right’). There is a fundamental disagreement here, and as such there will be no allegiance.

      There are also fundamental disagreements in every other example given here, because these ideologies have completely different philosophical foundations. Basically, this article is an enormous waste of time.

    • Richard Rowe

      It’s not really surprising that these two have something in common. At their core, they’re both about decentralized government. The problem is that we don’t have Anarchists or Libertarians in our culture today; the Right has hijacked the worst parts of both to create this monstrosity called “Anarcho-Capitalism.” They’ve taken the social policies of equality in Anarchy, and substituted them with the “might makes right” fascism of Austrian economics. In truth, this nation would be a better place if we DID have actual Libertarians and Anarchist parties active in the government. But we don’t anymore. After a century of political perversion, we have these mutated combinations of both.

      • Bob Fisher

        What’s perverted is how terrible your high school teachers are. Centralization is paramount to socialism — it’s literally the definition. A socialist government pulls under its control the means of production and resources for the society. It’s specifically about government control (the theory being that if the government controls it all, they can ensure a structure that will lead to an equitable distribution of wealth).

        When the government then starts actually controlling the means of distribution (as well as production), then you have communism.

        I don’t know where you learned about socialism, but they taught you very poorly. Socialism is about centralization. Libertarianism is about decentralization. They are polar opposites.

        • Shannon Thrasher

          “taught you very poorly”? Brainwashed is more like it. polar opposites is right. not a libertarian ever said **lets give more hard earned tax dollars to people who have no desire to earn it for themselves**. Or “lets give benefits to illegal aliens and the boot to the elderly” Or **lets fund poor housing so investors can earn section eight dollars hand over fist while simultaneously driving up real estate prices to the point that working families can’t buy a home.***

          Good try Fred… We are nothing alike, we stand to defend our constitution and your party stands to destroy it. Thieves and Liars. Your article smells thick as a turd with socialist propaganda.

      • Adam Michaud

        I’m not sure how you arrived at Austrian economic as “might makes right” Fascism.

        • luke orem

          He watched a democrat comedian talk about the free market as being unbridled monopolies controlling everything and he now believes that is what it means. Common misconception by very stupid people.

      • Amaroq

        Your self-contradictions broke my brain for a while there. Anarchy having “social policy” and Austrian economics being fascism? Implying free-market economics is antithetical to anarchy?

        Then I realized you’re just an Anarcho-Communist and it all made sense. It makes sense that you would attack Anarcho-Capitalism. You don’t just oppose tyrannic government like an An-Cap would. You oppose hierarchy itself, which means your ideal is an egalitarian utopia where nobody is better off than anyone else.

        I’m a Capitalist who understands that Anarcho-Capitalism is a self-contradiction that can never work. But they are at least somewhat better than you Anarcho-Communists. Their ideal is a mistaken type of respect for freedom, and your ideal is a mistaken form of oppression.

        You both make the mistake of thinking you can have your ideal without government, but you’re both wrong. The Ancaps think they can have a free market without a government to protect individual rights, and the Ancoms think they can have an egalitarian equality-of-outcome society without a government to force it on the people.

        At least the An-Caps’ misguided desire for freedom is a somewhat better intention than yours.

        • Richard Rowe

          I really don’t follow any of them…I just believe in preparing for the entropic decay of the system we have now. In a global economy, it’s inevitable that the concentrations of highest income will balance out with the lowest. Or come close to it. It’s not an ideal…that’s just how it is. I’d imagine we will always have people who have 10 or 20 times more than the poorest person in the world…but they won’t have 10,000 to 20,000 times more, as it is today. Technology is cutting our umbilicals to the people who have had the most power…the current structure is more of a last gasp of ogliarchy than it is the root of hierarchy to come. Might take 100 years, might take 1,000…but the entropy of the existing system of wealth concentration is going to break down sooner or later. I don’t think that should happen or it shouldn’t…just that it will eventually whether I want it to or not.

          And yes, Anarchy in its original form RELIED on a social policy that kept societal units functioning in the absence of centralized control. There absolutely was a social policy aspect to it, and that’s the only thing that could conceivably have made it work. And Austrian economics is economic fascism…it’s the very definition of the “might makes right” philosophy, just substituting money for guns. The more money you get, the more you can impose your will on those with less money. We see that now. Austrian economics is nothing but a tool used to further the accumulation of wealth by those who already have it. It’s a sad attempt at fighting the entropy of economics in an era of real-time global trade, and an intermediate step at best. the same can be said of capitalism itself. It will always exist, and it should, but it won’t run the world forever.

          • Amaroq

            You speak very abstractly. It still doesn’t fully make sense to me, but I think I see where you’re going.

            I don’t know where you get the idea that entropy applies to human society. Certainly it applies to things like energy and matter and such. But not necessarily to social structure. We humans, and in fact, we living creatures, have a way of creating order out of the raw material around us. Whether it be our bodies or the cities we build or the cooperative structures we form to accomplish more.

            If human society is experiencing entropy, it’s because irrationality is so rampant. The source of the values we enjoy, including the structures we make use of, is the reasoning mind. Without the mind being used any longer, the products of the mind would of course decay into nothing.

            I don’t understand what you mean still about anarchy having social policy. You mean small groups of people setting some kind of policy for their clans or whatever? What would be an example of social policy under anarchy?

            When we get to your economic views, I’m sorry to say that you’ve been absorbing Marxist ideas. Economic power cannot possibly be coercive. Only political power can do that. What’re you going to do, show the people commercials until they do your bidding?

            You’re reasoning from the premise that wealth is a static pie, and that any amount of wealth that one person has must have come at the expense of someone else. I’m primarily an Objectivist (an Ayn Randian, if you will), so I don’t know if Austrian economics takes this view. But the Objectivist view of wealth is that it is created by the reasoning mind, through rational thought and production. When a poor person works for a rich person, it isn’t exploitation. It’s trade. Both parties benefit from the deal, or else they wouldn’t engage in such a relationship.

            The richest are the richest because they’re usually the most rational and the most ambitious. They worked their way up to whatever position they have. If it isn’t true that they earned their riches, then the only other alternative is that a government-imposed advantage or favor got them their riches. And that is Statism, and not a fully free market anymore. That’s political power, not economic power.

    • a

      I’ve been saying that I’m a socialist libertarian for years and nobody seems to understand. Why? b/c no one really knows what it means to be either one independently. As a long time student of political theory, I think people feel most comfortable letting the ideology they align with speak for them without really having any rationale to argue or defend their often times illogical and incongruent belief “system”.

    • Mike Saenz

      I don’t know that it makes much of a difference to your article, but I think it is misleading to cut Ms. Rand’s quote from Atlas Shrugged. It is not just “I will never live for the sake of another man,” but rather “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The cut version changes the flavor a bit.
      Also, Rand was not “anti-government” like you imply (though I think many libertarians probably are). She is very much pro-government as long as it is defending (and not infringing upon) individual rights.

      • Antonio Buehler

        I used to be a rabid Ayn Rand devotee until I realized that there were some contradictions in her writing. Government inherently infringes upon individual rights. She screwed that one up.

    • StopMisrepresenting

      Too bad that most self-described socialist countries ( the ones without mixed economies) are extremely isolationist, militaristic, abusive of free speech laws, and provide atrocious healthcare with trumped-up statistics. The dissolution of private property necessitates the dissolution of free will. The two ideologies could not be more different.

      • M

        except for, you know, that whole “libertarian socialism” thing….

        • Bob Fisher

          Which isn’t actually a real thing. I misappropriate words and change their definition too — look at me, I’m a “free market communist!”

          • Nuyorwegian

            Libertarian Socialism is in fact an ideology with a great deal more history and substance than the peculiar brand of Libertarianism which has arisen in the US. It is only in the context of US politics that Libertarianism equals a rigid adherence to an idealized “free market”. There is no inherent contradiction between Socialism and Libertarianism.

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